Art, and my imagination, go technicolor
In '60s art, wonderful, frivolous color started bursting out everywhere like wayward fireworks.
Until then, sculpture had been brown. I exaggerate. But when, in the 1960s, I first saw the work of young sculptors making brightly colored sculpture out of fiberglass and painted steel, it was as if a fascinating new element had been invited into the world of sculpture. The color was fresh, daring, and lighthearted, challenging the universal sculptural brown. It was like spring after a long dreary winter.
It seemed to me an exhilarating escape from traditional materials - stone, wood, clay, bronze. Their inherent color was now no longer all the color sculpture needed. The mood had changed. In the postwar '50s, brownness had even invaded paintings. I abandoned art school after a week in the face of this attitude. I remember sitting dismayed in front of a particularly brown painting by one of the teachers. Just not my scene.
Working as a writer in London for a couple of years in the '60s, however, I witnessed the most disgracefully frivolous sense of color bursting out everywhere like wayward fireworks. Wonderful.
Going to art galleries became exciting, unpredictable. To close your mind to all this energy and exploration was pointless. To be open was infinitely more enjoyable.
I didn't like everything I saw, but my inbred traditionalism was being shattered. I was "discovering" modern art. I found it enthralling. I loved most the freeing of color from mere description. Why did red have to be used only to picture a tomato or a hat? Red was simply - and complexly - just red. Painters were stimulated by the idea of "pure color" straight from the pot. Painting naturally made this break first. But then independent color was carried over from painting into the three-dimensional explorations of abstract sculpture.
Quite a lot of what I liked was issuing from a diverse group of sculptors who had trained with Anthony Caro at London's St. Martin's School of Art. And Caro's own works were open, asymmetrical, unmonumental - and colored - structures. They were vital movements, almost dances, of painted steel shapes that floated, angled, circled, curved, leaned, or leaped across the floor. Though made of heavy steel elements, they seemed to be a weightless balancing act. They invited movement of eye and body in the viewer. Above all, they lifted the whole idea of sculpture out of its long association with "In Memoriam."
Although I'd seen nothing like this before, I didn't have to work at "getting" the abstract language at all. In an interview in 1980, Caro told me: "I think the use of color, originally, was a reaction to unpainted steel and to bronze sculptures. I felt I wanted my work to look more like a new thing, so I painted it green or whatever." But he also added: "With me, color has always been a little apart from the sculpture, it comes after it. It seems like an afterthought, a clarifying...."
When I'd first seen it, though, his color did not seem like an afterthought. His structures were underneath the color. How could one separate sculptures like his brilliant red "Early One Morning" or the rich clear yellow of his "Sun Feast," from the impact of their all-over color? What seemed to the sculptor a finishing, struck me as a primary.
One day, still in London but about to move to the United States, I was leafing through art magazines when I came across an American artist's work for the first time. It turned out that Caro himself had come to know his work on a 1959 visit to America. Yet I came to David Smith's sculpture having first seen Caro's, which in certain ways had grown out of Smith's. We do this; we see the history of art retrospectively. We see Michelangelo through the eyes of Henry Moore. Or knowing Picasso, we then look at Raphael.
David Smith worked in welded steel. And he had been using color on some of his sculptures since 1933. "I've been painting sculpture all my life," he wrote. "As a matter of fact, the reason I became a sculptor is that I was first a painter."
In the library, looking at photographs of Smith's work set out in serried ranks in the falling field at Bolton Landing, N.Y., where he lived and worked, I was bowled over by his tough use of color.
Caro's color was different. He used it in his own way. Smith noted: "I don't like pretty colors. I like kind of raw colors.... My idea of color ... is real gutty."
Smith's work was stimulatingly non-European. His totemic sculptures had an uncompromising, pioneering primitivism I couldn't imagine an English sculptor embracing. It belonged outdoors, not in the finesse and protection of a museum. (Museum galleries, I found, diminish his work.) It was jubilant, its sophistication disguised behind its "rawness."
Here was art that had no overt respect for forebears or history. "The paint here is not artist's paint," Smith once stated. "It is auto enamel." It was for protection as well as appearance. He applied 25 to 30 coats - "about three times the paint on a Mercedes or about 30 times the paint coat on a Ford or Chevrolet."
So sculpture could inhabit the same world as cars and trucks. It could withstand exposure to a terrible climate. It was not precious, not pretentious.
I couldn't wait to get to the country that could foster such newness and rawness. And such robust, crudely sensitive color.
To look at a color photograph of a painting, is to assume you see a faithful reproduction. It may well be inaccurate, but without the original for comparison, all you have to go on is the photograph.
Photos of sculpture - particularly outdoor sculpture like the 1961 "Zig II" by American artist David Smith (1906-65) - involve other crucial factors.
Around the late '60s or early '70s, I paid a brief, memorable visit to Bolton Landing, above Lake George in New York State, where Smith had lived and worked. Few of the many sculptures he had set out on his land remained. I do not recall seeing "Zig II." Indeed, in 1972 this piece was given by a donor to the Des Moines Art Center.
I've seen "Zig II" only as a photograph - this particular one (right), taken by Smith himself in his field against a deep-toned backdrop of shadowy trees. Unlike other photos he took of his work, it is not in bright sunlight, but in what I take to be half-dim, evening light, giving the strong and unusual colors a strange intensity.
Smith preferred his sculptures outdoors. Controlled gallery light and bland walls don't suit his aesthetic.
The relationship between the scale of a sculpture and its chosen setting is also telling. The upright stance of Smith's works is heroic. They lift boldly into the air; they need air to lift into. They belong in altering light and ever-changing weather.
"Zig II," with its abstract play of concave and convex forms, verticals and horizontals, no doubt looks magnificent anywhere. But this warm, subtle photograph surely enhances it profoundly. It was taken with the eye of the artist who also constructed and painted the sculpture.